Thoughts on my cinematic journey

Not so long ago I came to the intriguing realisation that, this year at the cinema, I have seen more classic films than new ones. To be exact, 13 classics and 10 contemporary films. Such a feat is easily accomplished in London, where the herculean BFI and the Prince Charles Cinema show thousands of classics year upon year, often in original, well-scratched 35mm prints. Yet it still seems a remarkably unusual thing to have discovered; one which suggests certain truths about my personal relationship with cinema and of the films I cherish in particular.

The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema
The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema

What is a “classic”? The US Library of Congress, which selects up to twenty-five American films each year for preservation, claims that ‘culturally, aesthetically or historically significant” values are most important. American Graffiti (1973), Ben-Hur (1959), Groundhog Day (1993) and hundreds of others are thus granted an auspicious status that in many circles commands the use of the word “classic”. Or is a classic a far more subjective thing? To most who have seen it, the Russian film Andrei Rublev (1966) is an inevitable classic because of its masterful cinematography and compelling performances; a film that evokes Medieval spiritual life with astonishing panache. To a few dissenters, however, it is an episodic and loose monster in which not a lot happens at all, and so the honour of being a “classic” is disputed.

Andrei Rublev - classic or tragic?
Andrei Rublev – classic or tragic?

Shallow postmodern arguments aside, what does strike me is the fact that most of the films I’ve been seeing in cinemas this year are significantly old. The last screening I attended was The Wild Bunch, released in 1969. The film I’m most looking forward to this September is not something new; it’s Fritz Lang’s M, first shown in 1931 and about to be re-released. As my interest in cinema deepens, the further back my enquiries take me – back even to the early stages of the medium itself, with my recent discovery of George Méliès’ La Voyage Dans La Lune, a beautifully detailed science-fiction short released in 1902.

Many of my friends and peers who love cinema share this interest in “old” films, yet not many venture to the BFI or Prince Charles, preferring the ease of a DVD. This was evidenced frequently in my mid-teens, when I once found myself sitting in a screening of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) as the youngest audience member by some thirty years. Perhaps that was just a bad day for youthful representation. But sometimes I do wonder if my friends could gain something from taking their interest in “old” films right into the heart of the very places they were first shown: in a hushed screening room, pitch dark, the screen the only light source – a place where cinematic sorcery is experienced at its most thrilling and palpable. If you try hard enough, you can really imagine what those first audience members must have thought and felt. Seeing old films in the cinema emphatically makes a difference, and broadens your view of the medium’s possibilities.

La Voyage Dans La Lune - recognise this?
La Voyage Dans La Lune – recognise this?

There’s also the question of the character of contemporary cinema. It’s singularly useless to argue that filmmakers like Michael Bay and the endless train of sequels and remakes have rendered cinema dead, although it’s easy to think so. In fact, nationwide festivals, especially the London Film Festival, continue to grow year upon year in exhibiting serious-minded, artistically precise films. The Curzon and Picturehouse chains are great places to find the latest arthouse dramas and comedies from all over the world; both are opening new cinemas across the UK. Yet my status as a soon-to-be History student has influenced my thinking; I’m convinced that in order to better understand contemporary cinema, I have to journey back into the past to see exactly where it has been. The roots of most modern science-fiction films with pretensions to artistic merit can be traced back to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Black Swan (2010) seems all the less significant when compared to The Red Shoes, which accomplished much of what Aronofsky’s film did, only sixty-two years prior. Every film has a precursor, and I’m fascinated by trying to find such films and assessing their formidable influence over time.

Looking at it this way, the surprise at having seen more classics than contemporary films really shouldn’t really exist. What’s more, it could be said that the “old” films I’m growingly obsessed with, with all their vibrant and diverse cinematic qualities, are in fact profoundly new.

The Wild Bunch - a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.
The Wild Bunch – a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.
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Review – Moonrise Kingdom

So I got back in England yesterday at 10.00am and went to bed later on having been awake for 36 hours. After a swift awakening at 5am I decided that, in a state of jet-lag, it would be wise and relaxing to go and… SEE A FILM! So off I went to the Prince Charles Cinema and watched Moonrise Kingdom. Here’s my  brief review, which doesn’t quite express just how good it is.

Review – Moonrise Kingdom

2012, 94 mins, 12A, Dir. Wes Anderson, starring Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Francis McDormand, Tilda Swinton

Moonrise Kingdom

I must confess to having watched only one Wes Anderson film before I came across Moonrise Kingdom. I thought Fantastic Mr. Fox, his only animated feature, was Americanised and not as witty as the Dahl children’s book. After seeing his latest film, however, I might just have to purchase his entire back catalogue.

Moonrise Kingdom is one of the most fun films of the year. It tells the story of two young outcasts who, after falling in love, run away from town on an island off the coast of New England. This causes mass panic and a search-party is commissioned just days before a great storm. 

Even for an Anderson newbie, the director’s style is instantly noticeable. His emphasis on quickly panning from one scene of action to the next propels the film forward with effervescent energy. Anderson is also very precise in his framing. Not a single shot is wasted as our two plucky protagonists journey through the forest, and a strange man with glasses and a green hat explains to the audience where we are and at what time at the beginning of the film.

His name is ‘Narrator’.

But it’s not just the cinematography that catches your attention. It’s a hilarious film, both in terms of its scripted jokes and general quirkiness. The fact that a lot of it takes place in the world of 12-year-olds allows it to do things that would seem out of place elsewhere; Suzy, the more disturbed member of the central couple, stabs one of the pursuing scouts with ‘lefty scissors’, which are vengefully referred to later on. The wittiness of the script and the craziness of the scenarios that play out are served well by the sumptuous visuals.

Credit must be given for the acting. While the ‘name actors’ (and there are plenty of them) surprise the audience each in turn, the real praise goes to Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, both of whom have never been in a film before. Their central roles aren’t easy but they adapt confidently to the strangeness of it all, and contribute to some of the best gags. They give the film its heart and are very easy to root for; we follow their journey truly hoping that they will make it.

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman as Suzy and Sam.

It’s a very nostalgic film, set in the 1960s, with record players and the like, but also in its youthful sense of adventure that is absent so much today. Anderson uses this nostalgia to great effect, perhaps connecting with some members of the audience through memories of childhood and young love. It’s cartoonish and, at times, surreal (especially the ridiculously tall tree-house glimpsed in the trailer), but ultimately it’s very touching in this way.

The director’s idiosyncratic style may alienate some cinemagoers, but for most, Moonrise Kingdom is a well-acted, funny and engaging film which has made me salivate for more of Anderson’s work. 

9 out of 10

Leicester Square is finally a square again!

In the past few weeks I’ve been under the plague of an unstoppable force that extends across the breadth of the United Kingdom. That force is… EXAMS! That’s right, I’ve been sailing/storming/stalling through my GCSEs which will explain the lack of recent material on here. I’m working on it. Soon for the pleasure of your eyes you will be able to read about my exploits at an Indiana Jones marathon, perhaps indulge in my idea of a ‘classic movie’ (I haven’t done one of those in ages) or anything else which I see fit to post.

What I’m going to talk about now, however, is that place in London known as Leicester Square, home to about a thousand different cinemas and a pleasant, though small, greenery area. Well, that’s what it was like, until some educated chaps decided to board up the entire place for maintenance, turning what was previously known as a ‘square’ into an awkwardly-shaped cigarette smoke-laden mosh pit, forcing distributors to hold their premieres elsewhere (which nonetheless resulted in a truly memorable sight of Trafalgar Square populated by obsessed hormonal teenagers for the final Harry Potter). Having only discovered the Empire’s gargantuan Screen 1 and the cult delight of the Prince Charles Cinema relatively recently, I have more memories of being caught up in a cramped myriad of tourists, businessmen and cinemagoers than the original square itself. It will come as no surprise, therefore, that when I heard Leicester Square was re-opening this weekend, I hiked over as soon as I could.

Well, sort of a square.

Did my frenzied excitement pay off? Well, to an extent, yes. It was nice to be able to breathe for once whilst in the area and the trees looked very nice. But to my mind the construction workers that had halted movement for months didn’t really seem to, well… do much. There was the added addition of several vertical jet fountains which lapped around noisily, and a distracting tent feature, but were they necessary? Everyone who walked through the square seemed to do so without the slightest inkling that anything had occurred. Perhaps it’s my fractured memories of the old square fading ‘like tears in rain’ – rocking the Blade Runner reference there – but there seemed to be no developments which were really needed beforehand.

Yay. Fountains.

Never mind. I did enjoy some of the events that were going on, despite the fact that barely anyone was there. The renowned stuntman Vic Armstrong gave a very entertaining interview, talking about his escapades in doubling for Bond, Indiana Jones, Superman and countless other film characters. After that, two Empire Magazine reviewers, Ian Nathan and Ian Freer, gave a fascinating insight into their jobs in ‘Life of a Film Critic’, which included their hilarious revelation of “the better the sandwiches at a press screening, the worse the film”, as well as a trailer for the upcoming Hobbit movie. You can tell why that would appeal to me…

Vic Armstrong – one of the greatest stuntmen of all time.
Ian Nathan and Ian Freer

So, yes, it was a fun and dehydrating experience overall, and thankfully the London tube trains weren’t too exhaustive. I’ll be back in Leicester Square in a couple of weeks for the Indy Marathon (which thankfully excludes the fourth film) at the Prince Charles Cinema. In conclusion I have to say that despite my reservations with some of the developments it is truly fantastic for the square to be back, and I look forward to basking in its warmth in the years of cinemagoing to come.

No more barriers!

P.S. I have a new camera. Click on the images, they grow so much larger, it’s incredible…